The battle for thought leadership: Seven hacks for effective studies

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The battle for thought leadership: Seven hacks for effective studies

June 16, 2020

Susanne Mathony - Tought Leadership

The battle for thought leadership: Seven hacks for effective studies

The battle over thought leadership hasn’t just been raging since COVID19 in Professional Services. Countless studies vie for the attention of C-suite and journalists on a daily basis.

In my column as #BeraterBeraterin on Consulting.de I am revealing seven tricks for successful content marketing in the industry.

Cars are the Germans’ favorite child. Combined with the fact that the industry is one of those most affected by COVID19, automotive studies are obvious.

Hence it is almost inevitable that several consultancies are launching their respective studies at the same time. This is what happened last week: AlixPartners on June 4, KPMG on June 5, Deloitte on June 10 and EY on June 11.

All were pursuing the same goal: as much press coverage as possible in leading media and the broadest possible mailings to clients and targets, often flanked by webinars and podcasts.

If you don’t have an edge in your messages, offer sufficient data sets, make strategic deductions for the future and have resilient, long-standing relationships with journalists, you have unfortunately lost.

Trust develops familiarity

More than ever, it’s about visibility in these times of crisis. Presence is now twice as important for consulting and accounting brands. The same is true for their leaders. If you don’t know someone, you won’t listen to them. Trust develops familiarity. As a consequence COVID19 has also become a battle over the air sovereignty of opinions. Inboxes are overflowing with studies from both large and small Professional Services players.

After all, according to the WGMB Consulting study, thought leadership is the second most important criterion on the basis of which companies select consultants – even ahead of price or general reputation.

In addition, research shows that 86 percent of B2B buyers became aware of a consultant through thought leadership. 49 percent have placed an order as a direct result of thought leadership.

Now that the future of the #nextnormal is being shaped, business leaders and consultants alike have to take a stand to avoid leaving the field to politicians and virologists.

Branding via content always happens via individuals as ‘personal brands’. Studies can be as brilliant as they may be, but the spokesperson who presents the content to the media and multipliers have to be just as brilliant. Companies are looking for experts who can act as a reliable navigator in this phase of uncertainty and disruption.

If he (or she) is not opinionated enough out of concern that one might upset clients or be “off the mark” with an overly pointed thesis, studies will go down without a sound bite. The reason? The important medium for people is always the person – not the beautifully branded PDF.

Why is only one in three consultant studies actually read?

Even – or especially – in times of crisis, studies are “in” among management boards and supervisory boards. 84 percent of the FTSE 350 executives surveyed by Grist attribute added value to qualitatively convincing thought leadership.

Yet frustratingly for consultants, decision-makers read barely one in three studies that reach their desks. Only 28 percent of studies actually influence board decisions. Moreover, the attention corridor is tight: 1 hour per week.

The criticism of the C-suite is brutal:

  • No original but instead generic content (63 percent)
  • No original insights, no new ideas (58 percent)
  • Consulting primarily wants to sell itself instead of addressing client needs (53 percent).

Seven hacks for excellent consultant studies

1. Timing – history punishes those who are late

Timing has never been more critical than it is today, when the news changes almost hourly. The time it normally takes to develop an all-round convincing study from conception to publication is clearly too long at present. There is a risk that the world will move on faster than anticipated or that competitors will be ahead of the game with their respectice launch. “Speed to market” applies more than ever – without bundling resources, you are left behind.

2. News value – dog bites man is no news, man bites dog is news

As trivial as it sounds: Even under COVID19, the “hook” has to be really new! After all, it is not called Thought Following, but Thought Leadership. Certainly, all Professional Services player need to have a point of view on macro issues such as disruption, sustainability or digitalization. But readers are now particularly demanding: without a specific twist and without individual insights, studies remain boring background noise that are clicked away unread.

3. Ideas – they must be able to become reality, otherwise they remain vain soap bubbles

A new idea is always something that clients didn’t know before and also makes them more future-proof. As a true thought leader, you dare to be the first and use innovative content to make people think or to make them realize what doing nothing could cost. Only bold ideas generate their own momentum.
Equally important: The topic and the brand have to perfectly fit – otherwise credibility will be thin on the ground.

4. Bold & unafraid – But better be emotionally intelligent, otherwise the faux pas is inevitable

Being really opinionated is a must! No one wants to read pages and pages of scenarios that could theoretically occur. 93 percent of decision-makers expect clear forecasts for the future. Consultants should dare to formulate theses that go against the grain. As stringent as statements have to be, they also have to demonstrate emotional intelligence. To do this, you don’t write in a vacuum, but talk to relevant target groups and listen – not only to what they say, but also to what they don’t say and their underlying emotions. Studies that don’t also show of humanity under COVID19 only come across as purely opportunistic, soulless selling.

5. Evidence – without data everything is nothing

The data basis is decisive if hypotheses are to be convincing and credible. Only well-founded insights create maximum customer relevance. Drilling too thinly – for example, only twenty respondents in a consumer sentiment survey for an entire industry – tempts the C-suite to ‘file P’.
Unfortunately, the business section of Handelsblatt or FAZ or even exclusive deals with Tier 1-media such as Manager Magazin Online or WirtschaftsWoche remain out of reach for press departments and PR agencies.

6. Storytelling – strong stories make abstract content tangible

Great storytelling appeals to emotions, motivates and captivates. This technique reaches the true power center of clients – the subconscious. According to neurobiology, this is where 95 percent of all decisions are made. Excellent studies provide insights from senior “been-there-done-that” consultants and back it up with visually compelling infographics (rather than donut charts from the standard template) in dynamic language. ‘Consultant-speak’ in Denglish doesn’t entice you to read – storytelling does!

7. Activation – PDFs that rot on the desktop do not generate revenue

A broad channel mix is crucial for building a sustainable brand reputation through studies. In this context, digital formats such as webinars, podcasts or LinkedIn flanking have gained further relevance in times of social distancing. Clients thus have the chance to interact with content and consultants, preferably in real time.
And yes: Viral mobile videos and listicles may be hip, but content formats and channels must first fit the target groups. Only then will all the effort pay off in concrete leads and sales.

Net-net: Thought Leadership is idea-based selling

Thought leadership at its best is idea-based selling. By outlining business opportunities or concrete solutions in a crisis, strategy consultants and Big4-players create the decisive ‘call to action’. This gives them and their business development teams a relevant hook for direct client engagement.

Strong thought leadership is too precious for impersonal mass mailings from CRM hubs somewhere in the US headquarters. Content has to be leveraged to initiate meaningful conversations or webinars for targeted relationship building.

In addition to time- and resource-consuming studies, smaller thought leadership formats such as blogs, LinkedIn Pulse articles, or byliners in magazines, etc. are also effective. Through professional, value-added content marketing, they become a pilot for clients in uncertain times.

Now good luck with your “tell to sell”!